But Wrath of Khan producer Harve Bennett intuited that Khan had made a big impression on audiences despite only having one episode. Bennett was 100 percent correct. Director Nicholas Meyer — who had never seriously watched The Original Series prior to tackling the film — heartily agreed that Khan was the perfect kind of classic character to bring back for the film. We all acknowledge that this worked now because it just works. But it’s a bit of a magic trick. Khan’s story in The Wrath doesn’t actually need the audience to know jack-shit about “Space Seed.”
Viewed only as a sequel to “Space Seed,” The Wrath of Khan has several points of divergent continuity. Much has been written about how Khan couldn’t have met Chekov because in TOS Walter Koenig wasn’t even on the show in season 1. This kind of thing can easily be fixed by head-canon that suggests Chekov was simply working on the lower decks that year and knew about Khan anyway. But this small hand wave is actually kind of the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how much The Wrath lets audiences off the hook for not having seen “Space Seed.” Why does Khan have a broken Starfleet necklace based on the 2280s belt-buckle, even though he got dropped off in 2266? How come all of Khan’s followers look like they’re in their 20s, even though there should be a ton of people roughly his age?
And what the hell happened to Khan’s wife? Midway through the movie, Captain Terrell (Paul Winfield) tells Kirk that Khan “blames you for the death of his wife.” Kirk roars, “I know what he blames me for.” But why? Why does Kirk know this? The hardcore “Space Seed” fan has to assume this dead, off-screen wife is Marla McGivers (Madlyn Rhue), but the rest of the audience doesn’t know or care.
Khan’s backstory is delivered pretty efficiently when Chekov and Terrell accidentally find him on Ceti Alpha V, and from there, you don’t need to know anything other than what Khan tells Kirk in the movie. “Surely I have made my meaning plain,” Khan says in the movie. “I mean to avenge myself upon you, Admiral.” That’s the Khan of this film, and that’s all we really need to know. Had Meyer been slightly more obsessed with “Space Seed,” you can imagine some version of the script where Khan references all sorts of stuff he and Kirk discussed in the original episode. But they don’t. And the movie is better for it.
Nitpicking about the differences between the “Space Seed” canon and Wrath of Khan canon doesn’t prove there’s anything wrong or bad about the film. In fact, from the Chekov thing to Khan’s super-young minions, to the incredible mistake the Reliant makes by confusing two planets, none of the wonky continuity hurts The Wrath. Instead, it’s the opposite! These differences are what make the movie work.
The Wrath of Khan was a dark-and-gritty Star Trek reboot that dared to glaze over some canon details. And in doing so, allowed Khan’s literal wrath to exist as a self-contained story within the film. We retroactively feel like we get Khan even though we might have been hazy on his origin. Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch) kind of lampshades this trick when she says “who is Khan!?” Kirk’s reply is “it’s a long story,” but at that point, the audience is fine not knowing about the details. We know who Khan is. He’s the guy with the Wrath. In this way, Khan is exactly like Sherlock Holmes to Moriarty. In the short story “The Final Problem,” Arthur Conan Doyle introduced Moriarty for the first time, and then, had Holmes convince Watson that this major big bad has always been around, even though he totally wasn’t.